Johnny Truant is a grunt in a Los Angeles tattoo parlor. To give you some idea of the company he keeps, his best friend is named Lude and he has a crush on a stripper called Thumper. When a blind old man, Zampanò, dies in Lude’s building, Johnny and Lude find in his apartment an enormous manuscript, written on scraps and bound with rubber bands, which Johnny takes home and begins editing. What he has discovered is House of Leaves, a dense critical treatise on The Navidson Record, a much written-about film in which Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson documents the creepy tale of what happened when he and his family moved to a seemingly normal house in suburban Virginia. Johnny soon finds himself with two problems: (1) Despite the book’s unbelievable disorder, he gets sucked in, suffers from nightmares, and cannot leave his house, and (2) there is no record anywhere of The Navidson Record.
Johnny’s experience reading Zampanò’s House of Leaves is actually a lot like the experience of reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Zampanò’s behemoth is clogged with the kind of preening pseudo-erudition that keeps many academic books from being read outside the academy: “It is impossible to appreciate the importance of space in The Navidson Record without first taking into account the significance of echoes. However, before even beginning a cursory examination of their literal and thematic presence in the film, echoes reverberating within the word itself need to be distinguished.”
Johnny’s ramblings can be equally tiresome as they meander through a landscape of obsession, drug abuse, and reined-in, tough-guy melodrama—”I’m so tired. Sleep’s been stalking me for too long to remember. Inevitable I suppose.” The novel is further encumbered by a critical apparatus that includes three competing sets of footnotes (Zampanò’s, Johnny’s, and The Editors’), sometimes mirror-printed and/or running wrong-way up the page, as well as multiple appendices and an index. The typographical experiments often seem random, requiring the reader to flip the book over and over to follow the narrative thread.
It is frustrating that House of Leaves is such a mess, because when Navidson’s story glints through the murky waters of Danielewski’s prose, it grabs hold and won’t let go. Navidson and his engineer brother begin to understand the magnitude of the house’s oddity when they discover that the house is bigger on the inside than on the outside—a structural impossibility with profound philosophical implications; for if this is possible, what is space, and where are its boundaries? The horrors that ensue keep the pages turning even when one’s patience for the writing wears thin. And although I hesitate to excuse Danielewski’s deliberate obfuscations, it makes some thematic sense that one should have to work to get at the core of House of Leaves. Navidson’s house, the novel’s central image, is so terrifying because its normal exterior conceals an unfathomable darkness; exploring it is difficult, which, the novel implies, is the cost of getting at the truth. Navidson’s, Zampanò’s, and Johnny’s searches for meaning within this material are mirrored in the frustrations of reading this book. Even the typographical trickery begins to make sense as Navidson’s plot becomes progressively more spine-tingling and the narrative trickles down to a mere thread, with only a phrase or sentence appearing on each page; the reader races through the pages exactly as her mind races to find out what happens next.
But in the end this deft onomatopoeia becomes tiresome in the general atmosphere of senseless typomania. House of Leaves draws from various sources—its heft, footnotes, and appendices recall David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; the flipping around necessary to follow the story reminds one of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch; and the effacement of key sections (Johnny alleges that a bottle of ink seeped onto the manuscript) loosely resembles Tom Phillips’s A Humument, in which the author painted over each page of a forgotten Victorian novel, leaving enough words exposed to create a new narrative. Yet unlike its lofty predecessors, Danielewski’s experimentation feels jerry-built. The “editors” never offer a “[sic]” for Johnny’s and Zampanò’s many “alright”s; an appendix of letters from Johnny’s insane mother defeats narrative momentum while contributing little to the reader’s understanding; and the sheer volume of supporting information will be enough to send many readers screaming.
Like last year’s film The Blair Witch Project, House of Leaves is at once worth trying to fathom and inexplicably overhyped, overstylized, and difficult. Danielewski’s bloated and bollixed first novel certainly attempts to pass itself off as an ambitious work; the question for each reader is if the payoff makes the effort of slogging through its endless posturing worthwhile.